It was about 2:30 a.m. Oct. 28 when the nine revelers pulled away from the dock at the Red Onion restaurant in Huntington Harbour. To driver Virl Earles, 29, and his eight passengers aboard a 20-foot speedboat, a quick trip out of Anaheim Bay to the Queen Mary and a blast of fresh ocean air seemed to be the perfect way to end a pre-Halloween night of drinking and dancing.
They passed the ocean liner and a lit-up oil rig, then turned back toward Huntington Harbour.
No one saw the three-foot-high steel and concrete mooring buoy. Within seconds, five people in their early to mid-20s--some close friends, some new acquaintances--would die, and the lives of the other four would be changed forever.
'Must Have Been Out'
"I think I must have been out for a few seconds, but not much more than that. I could see the surface of the water about as far away as the ceiling here," Earles said, pointing from a living room chair in his Seal Beach home, only about a mile from the crash site. "The boat was folded over on my left leg, and my foot was broken. So I just put my other foot up against the dash and pushed until I finally got loose."
Carol Kemble, 25, does not remember the crash. She did not hear or feel the impact against the seven-ton U.S. Navy buoy, she said, although she does remember the numbing sensation she felt as she was hurled into the frigid waters.
For more than two hours, she and another passenger, Ernest Chavez, 25, perched on the buoy and held Earles out of the water as he lapsed in and out of consciousness. Stephen Brennan, 24, the fourth survivor, swam ashore, despite a shattered pelvis and internal bleeding, to get help.
It was one of the worst private boating accidents on record in Southern California. Seal Beach residents John Bakos, 22; Ronald Myers, 22; Anthony Sutton, 27; Laguna Beach resident Kathy Weaver, 24; and Downey resident Patricia Hulings, 20, died.
In the days immediately following the crash, there was a flurry of activity.
Sheriff's Department investigators handed the case to the district attorney's office to determine whether Earles, whose blood alcohol level measured .11 after the crash, should be prosecuted.
The National Transportation Safety Board began its own investigation, sending a marine safety specialist and an architect to survey the scene and interview the survivors. That report probably will not be released until June at the earliest, board architect Ralph Johnson said.
Navy officials also conducted an inspection, and lawyers showed up at the bedsides of survivors and the homes of the families of the dead.
Meanwhile, the four who survived were beginning a painful journey back to physical and psychological health.
So far, only Kemble has recovered enough to return to work. She and Chavez, who is still on a leave of absence from his job in Bakersfield, see physical therapists for orthopedic injuries.
Brennan will never be able to work as a roofer again, nor to do any job requiring heavy lifting. Doctors are still unsure when Earles, who underwent a colostomy and now wears a brace to stabilize his broken thigh bone, will recover enough to return to a normal routine. He faces more surgery on his leg and ruptured intestines.
All except Earles have undergone psychological counseling. Kemble said she was plagued by nightmares for two weeks after the incident, but that the treatment has helped. "Not a minute goes by when I don't think about Pat and Kathy, but the nightmares don't come so often anymore," she said.
Weaver, a controller at Mercy General Hospital in Santa Ana, had been a roommate and friend of Kemble since the two decided to head for California after graduation fromcollege in Beaumont, Tex., two years ago. Hulings worked with Kemble at a Laguna Beach advertising agency and planned to move in with her and Weaver in November.
The survivors, as well as the families of those who died, have all retained attorneys.
Houston lawyer Neal Hirschfeld, who specializes in maritime law, filed separate $10-million negligence claims against the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the City of Seal Beach and the Orange County Board of Supervisors on behalf of the Bakos, Huling and Weaver families. He sent the same agencies $300,000 claims on behalf of Kemble and Chavez. Attorneys representing the other families have filed similar claims, with the total of all claims to date exceeding $200 million. So far, each has been rejected, paving the way for the first lawsuits in the case.
In addition, Hirschfeld sent suit-threatening letters to the Red Onion and Sundown Marine in Seal Beach, the firm that he alleges supplied the boat to Earles without life preservers. "If there had been life preservers on board, I would have worn one," Kemble said. "And we found out later that two (of the five who died) drowned."
Sheriff's Lt. Bob Kemmis confirmed that no life preservers were found at the scene.
'Very Touchy Thing'